There isn’t a whole lot to say about this, but I finally got the top of the coffee table glued up:
Most things take longer than I would prefer, but this one was slightly more annoying because I was very close a month ago. Looking back, I can deduce that the delay occurred because I was just not satisfied with that one outlier of a board that I showed in the last post. That eventually caused me to go back to the lumberyard and get another board. Then I had to flatten and thickness that, as well as loathe all parts before, during, and after. I also rearranged the board order a few times before jointing. The new board replacement board isn’t a perfect match, but it’s much better than the previous. And the grain does not reverse.
The jointing wasn’t a joy either (it never is), but it’s done. Time to trim that up and do a final planing.
So let’s check in on that coffee table project. I have completed the frame joinery:
Aside: Does anyone else have the problem hinted at above? Well, not so much a problem, but an annoyance. As I work through a project, its components start to pile up and I don’t really know where to put them. They always end up in awful places, but those places are chosen because they are the least awful. This gets worse when I have a few things going at once. Maybe I ought to have some dedicated shelves for this.
I’ve also flattened and thicknessed the boards for the top:
Hopefully, that one board in the center won’t look too out of place. I think I have a transition for that. Piecing together a consistent walnut top can be rough. In any case, all that’s left to do with the top is to joint, glue, smooth, and finish.
Then there’s what I’m working on now:
These are the panels for the sides and the drawer fronts. Rather than using a monotonous walnut all around, I decided to go with ash for these parts. Everything is now resawn; I’m just working through the flattening before I get to thicknessing.
That plane in the foreground is a Charles Nurse jack plane that I picked up at the spring PATINA Damascus tool sale. I’d been looking for a wooden plane to help with the more gruntish work like minor flattening, thinking that maybe it would be a little bit easier to shove around than my #5-size cast iron plane, or at least give an auxiliary when its blade is too dull and I’m feeling too lazy to sharpen it. I had to mess around with it a little (trimmed the wedge to prevent shavings from getting jammed, gave it a cursory sharpening), but it seems to be working acceptably now. I have a feeling that there’s more I could do, but I don’t want to spend the time on it right now. Perhaps I’ll feature it a little later if I stick with it.
It seems like it’s taken forever, but I’m finally ready to start a furniture project in my new shop. It will be a coffee table, something that’s been on “the list” for a very long time.
Like many of my designs, it will be based on a frame built with mortise-and-tenon joints, and will include 1/4″ panels. There will also be two drawers. The primary wood will be black walnut (despite its high cost at the moment), with a secondary contrast wood to be announced at a later time.
I have already cut and milled down enough of the wood to make the entire frame, and chosen the orientation and arrangement of the legs and stretchers. And here are the first two joints:
Those are haunched tenons; the ends directly below the top will not be visible when the project is complete. These joints give you a little more resistance to twist and a little more flexibility when making long tenons. I guess they’re also supposed to look cool or something.
As is my custom, I already screwed up. I referenced from the wrong side when marking the mortise on the right, yielding an incorrect offset from the front when I cut the tenon. So I sawed off the tenon, then made a new tenon using a compensating shim when marking. I suppose that I’m lucky that I made this error at this stage, because if I’d done that on a stretcher that already had a tenon on the opposing end, it’d be kind of unfortunate.
This is sure to be one of the most anticlimactic posts ever; the second bookshelf is done and has been pressed into service.
There isn’t much to say about it other than the finishing technique that I used. Rather than building up a film to complete filling the pores as I normally do, I decided to apply only two coats of varnish over the gel stain. This was primarily to reduce the sheen even more than the diffusers in the “satin” varnish already do.
The glue-up and finishing stages were difficult because this thing is so tall. SWMBO helped me here and I’m really thankful for that. It would have been very difficult otherwise, especially given the comparatively small space I had to work in.
It also turns out that you can get away with murder with a dark stain and just a little care when you apply varnish.
I didn’t really bother to take decent photos of the finished bookshelf. It’s just not a showcase piece; it’s there to hold books so that we don’t have to put them into boxes or just leave them on the floor all over the place. Somehow, I felt that this is a piece that should blend into the background; you shouldn’t notice it’s there most of the time.
So here’s the top corner, where you can see some of the figure of this exotic yellow-poplar and the highly esoteric literary tastes of this 100% Ph.D. household:
You can barely see the half-blind dovetails at the top. (And, again, I prefer it that way for this piece.)
But wait, there’s more. If you thought that was unimpressive, wait until you see the whole thing in its final location, jammed up against a wall and next to a cheapo particleboard bookcase that I’ll make a replacement for one day:
Hmm, it’s really difficult to get those wide-angle shots to look square. Well, off to the next project.
There are times when I feel like I’ve gotten nothing done, and this past month was one of them. It’s not entirely, true, though, as I have the new bookshelf glued up now:
Getting to the glue-up point was nontrivial. I had all of the joints cut more than a month ago. However, I decided that I would try to stain this thing dark, and because of this, there were some components that I should probably stain and varnish before final assembly. I spent a considerable amount of time doing so.
Staining is a nontrivial process. I read Flexner’s book about a hundred times, tried out many samples, and finally jumped in. Because the shelf is made entirely of yellow-poplar, and blotching is a problem on that wood, I decided to use a gel stain, topcoated with the usual varnish. As Flexner will tell you, gel stain doesn’t penetrate much. If you sand it, you’ll cut through in a flash. I used a full-strength coat of varnish right on top of the gel stain to build the initial coat of protection. Because the stain raised the grain and left a fairly rough surface, I wasn’t worried about adhesion problems, especially because I applied the varnish just one day after the stain. At that point, I was able to sand without worrying so much about cutting through, and a couple more coats went on after.
For me, one of the strangest things about using stain (well, pigment stain, that is) is that it seemingly went against everything I’ve learned so far. Normally, I just plane the wood smooth and apply varnish. However, a very smooth surface makes it difficult for pigment to find the nooks and crannies that it needs to stick in the wood. That might be OK if you don’t want much stain color, but I wanted a lot.
So, with this in mind, I did something that might make you cringe. After I planed the surface smooth, I sanded it with #120 grit sandpaper to rough it up a little (in the direction of the grain, of course). The strangest thing about the whole process was that the planing probably made the sanding faster.
There is another thing that I wanted to write about, but I somehow forgot to take photos. You might recall how the joint for the rear panels went in for the first bookshelf that I made; there were just a bunch of cross-members in the rear of the shelves that housed the tops and bottoms of the panels entirely. That worked, but it left me wanting more, mainly because the cross-member would stick up behind the shelf at the rear:
I came up with a way to keep the cross-member (which I like, for added strength), but hide the top of it and instead slip the panel in directly behind the shelf:
(I guess you can see the famous stain color here. Also, I didn’t bother to make the grain vertical in the panels, since it’s unlikely that anyone will really see them anyway.)
This isn’t complicated, but when put into words, it sounds complicated. There’s one rabbet on the top of the cross-member, with the high side being on the back, and then another rabbet is cut into the rear underside of the shelf, so that rear of the shelf rests on top of the cross-member. This forms a gap between the protruding end of the cross-member and the rear of the shelf, and that’s where the panel slips in.
In any case, now the hard part begins: I have to stain and varnish the rest of the piece. It’s taller than I am and barely fits in the shop.
I decided that the break-in project for my new workbench would be a bookshelf. Because the bench can handle six-foot boards, and I can still reach things that are six feet high, I decided to make the shelves six feet high.
Two workholding problems popped up in the course of the project. One was an oldie, and the other one was new. Let’s start with the old one.
I’ve found it annoying to joint narrow boards because I usually have to make a lot of them. I have a jointer fence for my Veritas jointer, but if a board just isn’t wide enough, something always obstructs the fence because it projects below the opposite edge being planed. For some time, I’ve dreamed of being able to secure a board on the edge of the bench so that I could use my jointer fence on it. I’d been scheming on accessorizing my bench dogs a little more, and yesterday, I finally did it:
This stop is nothing more than a piece of a panel that I’ve bored two 3/4″ holes in, and stuffed two of my bench dogs through and into the holes on the bench. There’s another one with two more holes and two more dogs in the tail vise on the other end of the board. Notice how the board is slightly proud of the edge of the bench.
The whole idea is to keep the stop from rotating around in a hole. I didn’t really expect this to work–I thought that the weight of the jointer would tip the board over. But it did work. I had to ease up the rear hole a little (with a half-round rasp) to keep the front of the stop from lifting off the bench.
What’s kind of funny about this is that Lee Valley released something similar to this for planing panels today, except theirs is supposed to be used perpendicular to the way this one sits on the bench. But I’m happy with my low-profile bench dogs for planing panels.
The other difficult situation I ran into was dealing with a dovetail joint on the end of a six-foot board. To cut the tails, I extended the board off the edge of the bench, marked it, and sawed:
Then I put it in the leg vise (supported on the other side by a holdfast in the other leg) and sawed/pared the tails to completion:
Then I had to mark the pinboard. After a bit of fussing around, I came up with this:
The past few weeks have primarily involved milling, milling, and more milling. Oh, right, there was also a trip to Pennsylvania. But after all of that excitement, I was able to glue the top. I used every medium- and heavy-duty clamp that I had for it:
Then I glued that piece of beech to the front, flattened the top, then flattened the bottom.
I’m not going to talk too much about this flattening and milling process because it was exhausting enough just to do it. The main reason was that the douglas-fir just ate up my plane blades–I constantly had to resharpen them. I’m not sure why this is the case, but it might have something to do with the hardened resin in this old wood. In any case, dull blades are next to useless on this stuff, and sometimes it takes a little while for it to dawn on you that you’re working with dull tools.
In any case, I was finally at the point where I could fit the legs. I’ve been thinking about the joints for the legs for a long, long time. I can’t say that I understand the monster through tenon joint illustrated in Roubo’s book. Schwarz only seems to say that “well, this is how it’s illustrated there, so that’s what I’m gonna use,” and that’s all fine and good, but I still don’t get it. Sure, you want a tenon, but should it really be through? That makes the top more difficult to reflatten. Plus, the through joint creates a weak point in the front left, especially if your wood over there is suspect to begin with. Roy Underhill illustrated what happens to that sort of thing at WIA.
Believe it or not, I like Underhill’s rising dovetail idea better for this kind of joint. Not that it’s any better with the weakness in the wood, but there is one property of it that I haven’t really seen anyone talk about in conjunction with a leg vise. If you think about it, because the top sinks down from the front, when a leg vise clamps something into place against any part of the top, it wedges the top into the leg.
As cool as that joint looks, I still did not want to use a through joint for my legs, so I just used angled mortises and tenons so that the top would still sink down from the front. I used a very slight angle (using the “eh, that looks about right” calculation with the sliding T-bevel), and before I started, I made a couple of guides to help. Here’s one that helped me guide my brace and bit as I wasted most of the mortise.
After boring and chopping out most of the waste, I registered the chisel face against this guide to pare out the sides at the angle necessary.
One advantage of making mortises this large is that you can shove a T-bevel into the mortise to verify that you got the side correct:
Here’s a finished joint (this time for the rear of the bench). It’s only a little more than an inch deep, and I do not plan to use glue, but I figure that the mass of the top will be more than enough to keep it in place:
If I’m wrong, I’ll use fasteners to wedge the joints into place.
It was a fine sight when I completed all four joints for the top:
These joints, however, didn’t really take much time (despite having only my fine-toothed joinery saw available to cut the tenons). Sure, I had to be a little more careful with the angles on the joints, but compared to process of preparing the top that I’d just been through, it was nothing.
Next up: Getting the stretchers in place, and installing the vises.
At the end of the last installment, I had the workbench top-milling task to deal with. I’ve never worked with anything this large before, so I didn’t quite know what to do. A little rough experimentation revealed that the grain reversed on the faces of the timbers about two-thirds of the way across, where the face became tangential to the growth rings (a common occurrence in this type of sawcut).
In light of this, I decided to rip the timbers at the point that the grain reversed, so that I could match the grain direction across the entire width of the top (it also didn’t hurt that there were a lot of monster knots on the “thin” side). That would give me two roughly 8″ sections that I’d be able to mill and glue up.
The first thing I needed to do was support the timbers while ripping. I had a choice between making sawbenches or just going out to get a couple of 2x4s to fill in the sawhorse brackets that I had on hand (I’d long since scavenged most of the pieces I used the last time I used the sawhorses). I opted to defer the sawbenches again and got the 2x4s.
Ripping six feet on two of these timbers was a chore, but not quite as bad as I’d expected. It helped that I sharpened my big rip saw before. In the end, I had to make four of those cuts (two at the point where the grain reversed, and two more at the ends to eliminate some excessively bashed-up wood).
So then it was on to milling. Now I really had no clue what to do. The first thing I tried to mill the edges was to fasten some handscrews in an odd arrangement to hook it to the end of my bench:
This was quite a secure arrangement, but it didn’t work for two reasons: First, there was too much junk in the shop to the right of the timber to get a jointer plane over there, and second, the timber was now far too high off the ground for me to reasonably bear down on.
After some fretting and sulking, I reminded myself that Toshio Odate wrote about how Japanese carpenters secure stuff both big and small against a wall (or something). Looking at pages 6-7 of his Japanese Woodworking Tools book, I tried to think of how I might be able to do this with with western tools. The one really important thing, it seemed to me, was to be able to keep some clearance between the end of the timber and whatever you’re securing against.
In the end, I came to this arrangement with the same sawhorses that I used to rip the timbers:
One end of the timber rests on a board with a clamped stop, and that board sits on top of the sawhorse with one end secured against a timber in the house. Here’s a look at the stop:
This is really nothing special, but it surprisingly worked quite well and I was able to mill and joint the timbers with no further ado.
Well, the “ado” would not apply to the task of lugging these timbers all over the place as I ripped, milled, and flipped them around. Ugh.
After I was finished jointing, I put the timbers side-by-side on my bench to see what I now had to deal with. Combined, they were 16 inches, and looking at this surprised me. I’d been thinking that I wanted 20″ across the top of the new bench, but now I wasn’t so sure. I believe that I’m going to trim that down to 18″, so now I need only one more 2″ wide strip to go across what will probably be the front of the bench.
The difficulty: Right now, I don’t have any pieces of douglas-fir in the appropriate size. The offcuts from the big rips are really a bit too knotty for my tastes (big knots in long-seasoned douglas-fir are essentially indestructible). I thought of getting one more timber, but then I had this other idea. I happen to have a piece of well-seasoned 8/4 beech that’s just the right length and width. Would it make sense to use that in the front? It doesn’t dent as easily as douglas-fir (even the excessively old stuff that I have).
Seems to me that it (or some other piece of hardwood) would work. Oh well, I won’t be able to work on this for two weeks now, so I’ll have that time to think about it.
It’s time to get down to that new workbench. Everyone and their uncle is building a Roubo this year. Consequently, I’ll just be another voice in the din of people blogging about their Roubo builds, but hey, I’ll have a new workbench at the end.
I got the first pieces of wood for this project late last year. A fellow BAG has a pretty serious quantity of reclaimed douglas-fir sitting around and was gracious enough to offer it my way (thanks Bill!). This is big stuff–basically 4x12s and 4x14s supposedly taken from a warehouse. Reclaimed douglas-fir has many advantages, but two of the biggest are that it’s quite hard (yet easy to plane), and it’s really, really stable.
The boardstimbers had a layer of cruft on the faces, consisting of oxidization, dirt, and who-knows-what. After cutting roughly to length, I sawed off the crud. That process looked like this:
I’ve decided that I will do this project completely by hand, just so that I can say that I didn’t wimp out with a bandsaw (or something of that sort of masochistic nature). Freakishly-looking disembodied arm aside, I’ve been doing all of the heavy-duty ripping like this, and it’s really not that bad (Remember how I mentioned that reclaimed douglas-fir is really stable? That helps). The timber is held steady by the front vise of my current bench.
Getting rid of the grime this way yields funny cruft veneer:
I could probably sell this stuff to an artist.
So after sawing, I finished sizing up everything with the usual cast of planes. With the wood I had on hand, I got three major components of the base: two legs (front and middle) and a stretcher (rear):
The plan for the legs is 5″x3.5″ and the stretchers will be 6″x3.5″. I won’t be thicknessing the stretchers precisely because there’s no need. You can tell how the scale compares to my current bench from the preceding photo.
And now I’m out of wood, at least for big stuff. Time to get another load!
[edit: It planes easily, but as I learned later, this wood dulls plane blades very quickly.]
When it dawned on me that I needed a workbench, I really didn’t know my requirements. The only thing that I knew for sure is that it had to be really strong, pretty heavy, and be able to resist racking forces. I hadn’t studied workholding all that well, but there is so much conflicting information on this subject that it probably wouldn’t have helped.
Now that I’ve used the bench that I made for about four years (and read about many other kinds of benches), I have a much clearer picture, and, well, it’s time to evaluate how I did. Since this post falls under the “goofs” series, you probably have an idea of how this is going to go.
However, let’s start with something that really worked for me: the base.
It’s a very simple knockdown design secured with bolts and captured nuts out of douglas-fir. In general, bigger is better when building the base. I used lone 2x4s for the legs on my first build, and despite looking a little flimsy in the front-to-back direction, it still worked fine. One of the reasons is that I used big 2x8s as stretchers in the front and back. That created so much surface area that a simple butt joint secured with the bolt meant that it never, ever racked side-to-side.
However, it was still a little on the light side for what I wanted, so when I moved out of the apartment and to my first shop, I replaced the legs with 4x4s and the side stretchers with 2x8s.
That change removed any doubts I had about this design. The Schwarz slightly poo-poos knockdown construction, complaining that you have to tighten up the bolts from time to time. I have not run into this as an actual problem. It’s just not that hard of a thing to do, and it’s not like it happens all of the time, either, especially when your wood is reasonably dry and stable (think douglas-fir), and you have an enormous joint mating area. I may have done it twice during the whole time I’ve used my bench.
With the added mass, I didn’t have a problem with the bench moving around as I used it in the old shop. I do have that problem when using the frame saw in the new shop, however (but not when planing or anything else). It’s primarily because the polished concrete floor is significantly slippery. I need to put down some really grippy rubber feet to fix this (or something of that nature).
I also put an improvised shelf in almost immediately–just a piece of plywood suspended over two boards. I put my larger bench planes there. It’s a great feature to have on a bench.
The top I used was a mixed bag of results. On one hand, it’s thick enough to take a pounding and it’s reasonably heavy. On the other hand, it really didn’t want to stay flat, it still could have been a little thicker, and it’s too deep. Let’s look at these one-by-one.
When I bought the top (an Ikea countertop made from beech), it was quite flat, but it started sagging at some point. I don’t know when that was, but it was pretty severe by the time I decided to flatten it. If I’d been paying attention, I would have flattened it earlier. It seems to be OK now, though. Sure, you have to flatten all workbench tops, but I have a feeling that something a little thicker wouldn’t have moved so much (unless it was a solid hardwood slab).
Yes, thicker would have been better. Being beech, the top was fine for taking a pounding as long as you were working near a leg (and that’s what you’re supposed to do anyway). However, a thickness of not even two inches has two weaknesses. The first is that it’s not as heavy as it could be. That’s not such a big deal, but the second issue is that it was difficult to mount the front vise. The model I have really wants something thick, and if you don’t have that, you have to improvise. I did so in an odd way; I’ll talk about that in a bit. But let’s not forget about the lack of dog holes in the front–I couldn’t put any in at that thickness.
The final problem with the top is that it’s too deep. That wasn’t a problem at my old shop, with the bench flush against the wall, but it’s no longer in that configuration, and I have a lot less room to walk around now. And stuff accumulates at the rear of the bench. Given the shop’s current transitional state of tool storage, there’s not much I can do about that, except that if I didn’t have that space, I’d actually be forced to resolve the tool storage issue and not have this problem in the first place.
Now, let’s talk about the junction between the top and base. Much has been written about the advantages of aligning the top and base along the front of the bench, and they aren’t lies. I should have done this and it’s still an option. Were I to do this, I’d need to bring my front vise chops into alignment as well (see below). One thing I’ll say about the top overhang is that I wonder why I put in an overhang of a half-inch at the rear of the bench.
Yeah, that’s just weird.
The top is attached to the base with flimsy L-bracket-style hardware. Strangely enough, it works. The top is so heavy that even with the most measly of lag screws holding things together, it never moves. It doesn’t vibrate. This still surprises me, given what the benchtop has to endure. Were I doing this over again, I’d probably do mortises just to keep it aligned (it’s a pain to put the top back on when you move from place to place), but I wouldn’t do Schwarz-style through mortises. They just don’t need to be that deep. However, it should be secured in some way just to keep the top from jumping around.
Keep in mind that this particular junction matters a lot more if you’ve got a leg vise. With a leg vise, you’re typically applying (very strong) pressure from the legs to the top, so something flimsy like my current setup wouldn’t work. However, if you’re using a front vise, that’s mounted on the top alone, so it doesn’t matter as much. I have my own ideas for the ideal joint in this situation, but they are just ideas at the moment.
So, speaking of workholding, I learned a lot about it from this bench. Before I even installed the front vise, I used a Veritas Wonder Dog, homemade bench dogs, clamps, and a handscrew to get things done. I still haven’t installed a tail vise-like thing (see below). You don’t need too many dog holes, and I prefer the round ones because they’re just more flexible.
You don’t need an end vise, but they are faster to move into position. If you decide not to do an end vise, you should probably put a couple more intermediate dog holes at the end, and bore a second set of aligned holes so that you have two points of pressure for the double-wedge method. You will use this method eventually, even if you have a wonder dog, because the wonder dog is hard to use with thinner boards.
And then there’s the matter of the front vise and the overhang.
My install of the front vise is, to say the least, one of the stranger features of the bench. Due to the way that the Jorgensen front vises are designed, you secure it through the front and underneath (other manufacturers have you do it all from the bottom). And here’s where the thickness of the bench got to be an issue again. The vise wants a certain thickness that I don’t have, so I ended up shimming the bottom and the front of the vise. The result looks strange, and in use, it’s got some “special” working qualities. If I were doing this again, I would glue a thick strip of hardwood or douglas-fir to the front of the bench as an apron-like thing, inset the vise into that, get everything flush to the front of the bench, and be done with it.
The major issue is the overhang. Much has been written about the advantages of having the top flush with the front legs, so I won’t bother with repeating that here. But another disadvantage is that if you have a front vise sticking out with so much overhang like this, if you put something really heavy in there, the bench gets to be a bit front-heavy. It’s not enough to have it tip over, but it is enough to get the rear legs to very slightly lift up when you’re doing a heavy sawcut (not coincidentally, the most likely thing you’re going to do when clamping something very heavy).
Despite the strangeness, the front vise does a pretty good job, about as well as you can expect for a vise of this design. The quick-release design is polarizing. On one hand, it’s very fast. A half-turn back and it releases. On the other hand, you can’t use the vise for spreading operations, as you would be able to on a model with the little release trigger. One common complaint about these types is that the guide bars make it difficult to secure boards vertically (for dovetailing, for example). The good news is that the guide bars of this model are well-made, so the racking is kept to a minimum. I hardly ever need to use spacers to even things out.
An advantage by accident is that having the vise protrude so much allows you to get behind the cut when you’re sawing tenons.
So that’s the bench evaluation–that’s what I’ve learned from this one. There are lots of things I could do to improve this bench, but I won’t. Why?
Because I’ve got the green light to make a new bench. And I’ve already started.